The Business of the Performing Arts

Sri Lanka’s most storied dance studio is transforming for the future. Its biggest challenge lies ahead.

By Valli Thangarajah.

Published on December 22, 2014 with No Comments

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To restore and practice dance as a high art form has never been easy. Some managed to stay true to their art, refusing to exploit their skill for commercial gain. To shape and sustain artistic vision has always been a struggle. From Isadora Duncan to Protima Bedi, to Rukmani Devi Arundale, to Chitrasena, Vajira and Upeka – across the world, gifted and talented dancers have refused to commercialize their craft.

Most of them paid a heavy price for it. They asked for nothing but the opportunity to Dance and be recognized for the expression of their talent. Like shooting stars they blazed a path of glory in the ephemeral world of Dance. However a younger generation is beginning to test those boundaries by calling for a higher economic value to be placed on the Performing Arts. It is viable, they say, to stay true to artistic integrity and find a route to the market to deal with the economics of sustaining their Art. This thought process is leading to radical transformations by gifted young practitioners of the Performing Arts who are willing to take the risks and explore the unfamiliar. They are also getting private corporations to recognize the economics behind Dance by showing them a reason for investing.

A report by UNESCO says “Culture and creativity is becoming an increasing driving force in the international marketplace. Based on ideas rather than physical capital, the creative economy straddles economic, political, social, cultural and technological issues and is at the crossroads of the arts, business and technology. It is unique in that it relies on an unlimited global resource: human creativity. Growth strategies in the creative economy therefore focus on harnessing the development potential of an unlimited resource.”

When Arjuna Wignaraja, better known as Arj, was a young student at Princeton he fell for a tall, smart, articulate, attractive young woman following a Business Administration Program at UC Berkeley. Having known each other in Sri Lanka where their families were friends, the young man studying for a BA Honors in Economics and an MBA at the Kellogg Graduate School of Management had along the way managed to impress and woo none other than Heshma Melvani, the eldest granddaughter of Sri Lanka’s pioneering dance couple Chitrasena and Vajira. As the third generation of a family of pioneering professional dancers who have dedicated seven decades of their lives to its mastery, Heshma recollects saying to Arj that the legacy of the dance heritage she inherited would always be a pivotal focus of her life and could never be sidelined by marriage or motherhood.

Having grown up rooted in the classical environment of dance and being a part of it during her formative years Heshma ended up completing a degree in Theatre Arts in Dance in preparation for the role she knew she would be one day called upon to play. Arj pursued the young dancer and Heshma came back to Sri Lanka after living and working in the US for some time with her young family to take on the mantle as Artistic Director for the Chitrasena Dance Company. As for Arj he did not fade away to stand in the sidelines. Although he had been involved in theatre at a young age he professed ignorance about traditional Kandyan dancing.

With Sir Edmond Hillary - NZ 1972

Chitrasena and Vajira and their Dance Troupe with Sir Edmund Hillary the first man to conquer Mt Everest in New Zealand

With Sir Edmond Hillary - NZ 1972
He is a founder and Managing Director of the Asia operations of Remote Sensing Metrics, a firm that provides proprietary reports based on highresolution satellite imagery to Wall Street investment firms and retailers. He also set up global consulting firm Stax’s Colombo office as their Managing Director and is currently a Senior Advisor. The congenial and cerebral corporate honcho’s background in formulating business strategies for Fortune 500 Companies came in handy when Heshma outlined her family’s new vision and need for a state of the Art Dance Centre. Already an integral part of the dance community, Arj is the Master of Ceremonies for all their shows and an involved member at the Centre supporting Heshma and the other members of the Family to create, maintain and transmit their artistic talents.

Heshma’s immersive, imaginative and visceral work as a choreographer and Artistic Director is contributing to the continuing evolution of dance. She was awarded the prestigious Eisenhower Fellowship for the 2012 South Asia Regional Program and was invited to the USA for three months on a tour to study modern dance choreography and new techniques in dance training and effective management of dance schools.


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Working from a basic and limited space, the Dance Academy resonates daily with the dedication of its star performers. With over 300 students, a number of senior scholarship students, drummers, musicians and technicians, the Centre has become a hub for inspired creativity. After working at 9-5 jobs, dancers, musicians, drummers, teachers all come together to create, learn and contribute, having fallen under the spell of the Performing Arts.

By taking on the responsibility along with star performer Thaji and the dynamic Umadanthi, Thaji’s sister who handles administration and marketing, the continuity of the Dance Academy after Upeka’s retirement as a performer is now assured. Between them a number of successful productions one after another under the guiding combined force of Vajira and Upeka have led to international collaborations, global exposure and a growing audience. So much so that dance purists and exponents of Indian classical dance forms from the Nrityagram Dance Ensemble in Bangalore staged a joint collaborative production with the Sri Lankan dance Company in 2012. Their production “Samhara” was performed at the Joyce Theatre in New York and elsewhere to critical acclaim and was nominated for a Bessie Award for ‘Outstanding Production’ and ‘Outstanding Sound Design and Composition’.

With its growing stature as a centre of excellence for Kandyan Dance, the centre has also been approached for workshops and collaboration on dance by the Singaporean based Maya Dance Company, The Spectrum Dance Company from US, Helena Waldman of Germany, Battery Dance Company of New York and Albert David from Australia. International students seeking residential status are being turned away due to a lack of infrastructure needed to take them on.




As one of the key players of the core group Arj has taken on some of the challenges of The Chitrasena Kalayathanaya’s vision of opening a world-class facility for dance in the future. The project targets an ambitious Rs250 million Endowment Fund. It’s the first time something of this nature and scale has been undertaken by a Sri Lankan private Dance Company. They plan to build a symbolic and aesthetically pleasing centre for the Performing Arts.

The corporate sector, dance patrons, individuals, national stakeholders and professionals are being invited to participate by sponsoring either a space in the proposed Chitrasena and Vajira Centre for Dance or sponsoring a student. Corporates and multinationals are being won over with the opportunity to align themselves with a historical Sri Lankan Brand for preservation of Dance and Culture. Some of the corporations that have stepped in with funding and resources to support the vision include global bank HSBC, which has funded a multiyear scholarship program for dance students, insurance major Janashakthi, which is covering travel and health insurance for the dance company’s foreign tours, and JWT, the advertising agency which is working with the Chitrasena Vajira Dance Foundation on branding and messaging for the Endowment Campaign. “We are looking to further align with Sri Lankan firms who have built, or are building global and regional brands, under a broad theme of ‘taking the best of Sri Lanka to the world’,” says Arj. “In a cultural sense, that is what the Chitrasena Dance Company has done, and it would be a natural fit with select Sri Lankan brands that have global aspirations.”

The award-winning architect Anjalendran has drawn the blueprints for the Dance Centre. It is based on ‘vernacular’ styles of local architecture using environmentally friendly organic material. The building will have living spaces for teachers, a soundproof music studio to compose, record for productions and allow dancers to accompany the musicians while recording. The space will also to be used as a gallery to showcase archival material and house a permanent exhibition for Art and Photography. Importantly it will have separate residential facilities for students including those from overseas and visiting artistes. An artistes’ lounge for facilitating interaction and collaboration, green rooms, a library, a museum to archive an invaluable collection of dance theatre history, additional dance classrooms, prop rooms and rooms for equipment and costumes are also planned.

There is a new contract being written between Business and the Performing Arts. Seeking to operate as a Non-Profit Organization, the members of the Project Committee for the Five year Endowment Plan have been selected from a varied background of IT professionals, Business and the Corporate sector to create a Corporate framework for the Performing Arts for the first time.

The Chitrasena’s family vision gives an important opportunity not only to address the issues surrounding dance advocacy in Sri Lanka but is also generating the idea that the Performing Arts should be looked at from a professional angle and given a corporate structure. Supporting this is a group who are spreading their influence and extending their support for the evolution and sustained excellence of ancient dance artistry by investing as stakeholders in the Performing and Visual Arts.


Vajira in the famous promotional poster printed by the Tourist Board

“The Endowment Fund will establish a Centre for Dance that will ensure sustainability for Kandyan dance, reflective of the cultural life of the Nation” says Heshma. Individuals and the corporate sector can take up membership at the Centre under various categories. A Legacy member for a contribution of Rs1 million will receive invitations to exclusive events and previews of shows at the Centre, four premium seats at every public performance, reserved seating for friends and family and be able to request an exclusive private performance at cost subject to conditions. Corporate Institutions can hold a Corporate Sustaining Membership for a commitment of Rs500,000 annually for five years and will be allocated ten premium seats for every public performance along with similar privileges awarded to a Legacy member while a Sustaining member can for Rs100,000 be entitled for four premium seats and invitations for exclusive events and previews. The Endowment Fund will also create opportunities for Dancers and Musicians and students of ancient art forms to work full time on their craft and lift their exceptionally low economic status. Most performing artistes are forced to work for their survival even when they wish to become professional artistes. The performing arts as it stands today is a bad provider of incomes.

Aspiring traditional dancers struggle to pursue a dance career because it does not provide a sustainable living. To address this The Endowment Fund will create sponsorship packages for dance and music students with a two year Rs120,000 annual scholarship funding talented students through the Gift of Dance Program. Apart from dancers, time, money, and space are basic pragmatic resources. The spaces to develop new ideas, to try ideas with dance teams and rehearse. These core resources are in short supply today along with the resources to nurture dancers wishing to pursue dance and other cultural pursuits in the visual and performing arts as a full time career.

“This will be a landmark achievement for us along our way to take traditional dance in a sustainable way to become one of the finest classical dance forms of the world” says Heshma. The Endowment Fund will introduce a recognized qualification for the Performing Arts by forming a group of professionally trained traditional dancers and artistes.

When Arun Abey, investment strategist and co-founder and Chairman of Ipac Securities, one of Australia’s largest specialist financial advisory firms managing a US$15 billion portfolio, as well as the author of two international bestsellers, came from Australia to make the first donation of $100,000 he pointed out that being close to artistes who live simply, inspired almost purely by passion and creativity, had given him a greater sense of personal balance and perspective to develop the creative parts of his mind which complemented his formal academic education.

“It has been a source of a competitive advantage for me in business as well as a source of strength personally.” The relationship goes back to the days when his mother Annapurni, a former student of Vajira’s, arranged the Dance Company’s first tour of Australia in 1962 at a time when, according to him, Australia had virtually no Asians, let alone Sri Lankans, and had not yet established a national ballet company as the country was symbolized by meat pies, kangaroos and Holden cars. His parents, driven by their passion for Sri Lankan dance, went ahead to arrange an Australian tour for the Chitrasena Dance company. “Given that they had no resources and no contacts, the idea was audacious, if not ludicrous. But their passion meant that they only saw the power of possibility.”

“They used to invite journalists to their tiny flat, a few at a time, where his mother would first prepare a delicious meal and then demonstrate some of the dance steps, which he would accompany on a drum. This led to contact with the trustees of the Elizabethan Theatre Trust (a predecessor to the Arts Council) with whom the process was repeated.”


The end result was that the Trust agreed to sponsor the Chitrasena Dance Company which in 1963, became the first Asian dance company to tour Australia.

Both in 1963 and in 1972 during their tours of Australia, Arun spoke of being pulled out of school to accompany his parents and the Chitrasena Dancers on their Australian tour to watch over 30 performances on each tour. Being a part of the dance world helped him in his business career in a myriad ways, “not all of which are possible to quantify or understand. Some of the main contributions were to my sense of possibility, inspiration, imagination and integration of ideas. Watching my parents achieve the apparently impossible, I am sure was an important ingredient in giving me the confidence, as a 24 year old, to follow my own path and become an entrepreneur who wanted to change the world,” he says.

The Chitrasena Dance Company has to date performed over 35 critically acclaimed productions and more than 50 world tours in 27 countries. The vision of introducing artistes, dancers musicians, stage designers and other theatre artistes to devoting themselves to a full time training in a dance career at a world class residential performing arts space where “they can live and breathe dance” is creating an image of a future that will transform traditional dance in Sri Lanka. Heshma, Umi and Thaji along with the contribution of the other members of the family, dance patrons and a growing group of stakeholders from corporate heads to topnotch Architects, young professionals and other artistes are now part of a new effort in cultural brand building. By nurturing emerging artistes from across the country, developing platforms for contemporary productions, seeking crossdisciplinary collaborations with world class independent artistes and Dance Companies, and audience development for traditional dance forms; a new thinking in the performing arts is emerging through a foundation laid seven decades ago by a small dedicated group of people who pursued their craft as a calling with no expectation of being paid for it. Dance, movement and performance in general transmit knowledge that can’t be recognized in archived texts and documents.


The proposed Design for the New Dance Center by Architect Anjalendran


Seventy years ago a young man with a fire in his belly began the passing down of an ancient dance form as practiced through an ancient system of Guru to Shishya. His legacy is being taken forward to move with the times in an ambitious project to preserve the disappearing ephemeral forms of Dance. Learning the craft thoroughly and rigorously -Chitrasena’s legacy – has been left to the few custodians determined to keep it alive through extreme personal and professional sacrifice. There have never been wealthy artistes – only great ones. The vision of artistes being able to engage with their arts full time with fewer economic pressures seemed an impossible dream. Famous contributors to the world of Performing Arts like Martha Graham. Paul Tailor, French mime artist Marcel Marceau, and Ravi Shankar have paid tribute to the Chitrasenas for keeping Kandyan dance forms alive. It was also while living and working at the first school that Ananda Samarakoon created the Sri Lankan National Anthem.

Cultural heritage, says UNESCO, does not end with monuments and collections of objects. It also includes traditions of or living expression inherited from our ancestors and passed on to our descendants, such as oral traditions, performing arts, social practices, rituals, festive events, knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe. The importance of intangible cultural heritage is not the cultural manifestation itself but rather the wealth of knowledge and skills that is transmitted through it from one generation to the next. It thrives on its basis in communities and depends on those whose knowledge of traditions, skills and customs are passed on to the rest of the community, from generation to generation, or to other communities. The social and economic value of this transmission of knowledge is relevant and is as important for developing states as for developed ones. Ancient Dances represent inherited traditions from the past making it contemporary and living at the same time.


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